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[JAKARTA] For much of the six months prior to October, Asians have watched with quiet concern the series of revelations made by former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden about surveillance activities involving governments in the West. Then the Snowden reports hit closer to home.

Copies of documents sent to media outlets (31 October) by Snowden reportedly detailed how the United States was using its embassies in a number of Asian countries as listening posts to monitor activities — including telephone calls and data exchanges — of top government officials in the region.

It is not just the US anymore. Indonesia has an ongoing spat with Australia over the reported monitoring of Australian intelligence personnel of phone calls of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his ministers. This prompted the South-East Asian nation to withdraw its ambassador from Australia.

“We are indeed very much concerned about the evolution of governmental surveillance.”

Benjamin Ismaïl, Reporters Without Borders

Governments and consumers across Asia have increasingly voiced concerns about cybersecurity and internet freedoms and are taking action to protect their own networks from cyberattacks, while also strengthening their capacity to better monitor the web and citizens’ access to information.

Singapore is investing over US$100 million in new cyber-defence agencies, while Indonesia is preparing plans to develop a ‘cyber army’ which will be integrated into existing military structures.

Amid all this, international organizations such as the New York City-based Committee to Protect Journalists, fear that the surveillance actions will provide cover for Asian governments to further invade privacy, says Rob Maloney, a spokesperson for CPJ.

“We are indeed very much concerned about the evolution of governmental surveillance, and not only the information we receive about specific cases, but also the overly broad laws that accompany these policies,“ said Benjamin Ismaïl, head of the Asia-Pacific Desk for Reporters Without Borders (RWB), citing Japan, Australia, and New Zealand as examples of democratic countries moving in the wrong direction.

As national cybermonitoring capacity increases, this might have an even larger adverse effect on citizens’ access to information around Asia. Already, regional media are often subject to hard-handed government oversight, and no countries in the region rank in the top 30 on the 2013 Press Freedom Index from RWB.

China’s ‘great firewall’ is well known, but it is hardly the only example. Singapore’s increasingly onerous registration restrictions have forced small, independent news sites to shut down. In Malaysia, before last year’s contentious elections, videos and articles about the opposition were subject to denial of service attacks, rendering them inaccessible within the country.

Harish Pillay, president of the Internet Society, Singapore Chapter, believes that media freedom has not matched economic growth due to a prevailing paternalistic political atmosphere.

“The government believes, ‘I know better than you’,” he says, adding that it is not necessarily fear, but the inability of leaders to admit that they may have been wrong that is impeding change.

Though big tech companies have formed an alliance to counter government surveillance, Ismail takes these actions with a grain of salt. These same companies have and continue to aid Asian governments in oppressing information for access to markets.

“In the end big players like Google, Microsoft, but also Sina and Tencent, really need to change their policies and be much more proactive in contributing to an open, uncensored and surveillance-free Internet,” says Ismail.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.